Your memories and perception of what the Ken doll is all about may have a lot to do with your generation and whether or not you played with Ken dolls as a child. The famous male companion to the Barbie doll has gone through many transformations (just as Barbie has) throughout the years, reflecting the styles and trends of pop culture. In Pixar Animation Studios’ “Toy Story 3,” the Ken doll is a hilarious throwback to the early ‘80s, when the preppy look was all the rage in ways that screamed less “macho” and more “metrosexual.”
Michael Keaton is the voice of Ken in “Toy Story 3,” which continues the story of toys that come to life. Some of the returning characters include piggy bank Hamm (voiced by John Ratzenberger), Barbie (voiced by Jodi Benson) and Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris). In “Toy Story 3,” the toys end up at the Sunnyside Day Care Center, where they meet Ken, who becomes infatuated with Barbie, but his loyalties are soon tested. Keaton, Ratzenberger, Harris, and Benson recently gathered for a “Toy Story 3” roundtable interview at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, California. Here is what they had to say.
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
It seems like a no-brainer to want to do a movie like “Toy Story 3”, but was anyone hesitant to do the movie?
Keaton: [He says jokingly] They had to twist John [Ratzenberger’s] arm.
Ratzenberger: It’s interesting. I was having a conversation with somebody about this other day: When did we become a society that honors failure instead of success? Everybody’s waiting for Pixar’s first dud. Why? It used to be we encouraged success, but now everybody’s like vultures on the side of the road, waiting for a car to hit an armadillo.
Benson: To me, it’s more like, “Can they really pull this off? It’s more like a sense of amazement: “Look at this! They pulled another one off!”
Ratzenberger: It’s really because they really consider every film they do as their first one. They forget that they’ve won 26 Academy Awards. They forget that they’re at the top of the heap. They give themselves a challenge in every single film, and they accomplish it. They work as hard on the 12th film as they did on the first one.
Harris: Even harder.
Ratzenberger: Oh yeah, because they have a standard to maintain. That’s the beautiful thing about Pixar: They maintain a standard.
Keaton: They are meticulous.
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
Do you think that doing the poetry of the first two “Toy Story” movies is lost in doing another “Toy Story” sequel?
Keaton: No, not in this case. Do you mean generally in movies? Yes. And what’s interesting about this one [“Toy Story 3”] — and admittedly, I had to catch up to all of them because I didn’t see them when they first came out — when I look at what came before, including the first two [“Toy Story” movies], this [Pixar] is an extraordinary company. It’s a mentality where they say, “Keep striving and striving and striving and striving.” From what I can tell — and I’m new to this group — this looks to me like as good, if not better. You guys can answer this better than I.
Ratzenberger: Yeah, the standards are there.
Keaton: But I mean, in this particular thing. It seems like one of the sequels that didn’t dip. Also, people are hipper to that now. I haven’t seen the second “Iron Man” [movie], but some people said that it’s good, if not better [than the first “Iron Man”] movie. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I think people are aware of that now. Everybody gets soft and lazy.
Harris: I feel each [“Toy Story”] movie got progressively better. It thrills me. When I saw [“Toy Story 3”], I said, “My God! They did even better!”
Barbie (voiced by Jodi Benson) and Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton) in “Toy Story 3”
Michael, you’re so expressive in your face when you act. Was it harder for you to just act with your voice for an animated film like “Toy Story 3”?
Keaton: Yeah, it is a bit of a challenge … I’ve played roles in smaller films where I’m very not been animated, let’s just say, and not expressive … It was hard; it was difficult. [John] Lasseter directed me in the first [Pixar movie I did, “Cars”], and was actually in the booth with me at times, and actually had to bring me up to speed on how this was done and how to work it. It was not easy for me the first time. This [“Toy Story 3”] was easier, but it’s probably a weapon or tool that you have taken away.
Michael, can you comment on “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich saying he wanted Ken in “Toy Story 3” to be like an insecure Burt Reynolds?
Keaton: Wow, I don’t know how Burt would feel about that. Probably flattered. That’s a very funny description. That’s a great description. Maybe not [Burt Reynolds] specifically, but maybe that type of American guy from that era. That’s actually a very funny description. I wish I could’ve been told that. I could’ve worked from that.
Jodi Benson and Michael Keaton at the Los Angeles premiere of “Toy Story 3”
When you get a job like “Toy Story 3,” are you hired for your own voice or are you hired as a person?
Benson: I think of it as a person. I don’t really look at it as a voiceover job. I look at it as a character job. For me, it’s very physical, working up a sweat, making a fool of yourself behind the glass. For me, it is a very physical, acting it out like how I would on stage. That’s how I play the character.
I never really think about it being the voice, but it is tricky when they’re pushing the pushing the buttons saying, “We’re getting it but we need more.” That’s when you realize you’ve got to fine-tune it into the voice and get rid of the body. For me, I’m very physical that way. I actually tied my arms down in “Toy Story 2,” because I wanted to get that feeling of what that whole feeling was like, so I sort of locked my elbows in. I think each person is different.
Keaton: It was Bondage Barbie!
Benson: I think Pixar chooses people for the whole person, not just the voice.
Harris: And we are filmed while we are talking, so we do act and move. And many times, they take our movements that they have on film for the character, so it’s more than just the voice.
Keaton: What I didn’t realize until I saw it was that [Ken and Barbie], unlike some of the other toys, actually are limited. Literally. When I saw them, I was like, “Oh, that’s right. He doesn’t move. He’s built out of that plastic thing.” Actors are unbelievable in the way they think. You kind of go, “Oh, man, if I had known that …” I can never stop working. Anything you see, you always go, “Oh, if I could’ve had another crack at that! Why didn’t think of it? Plastic! It’s so obvious!”
Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton) in “Toy Story 3”
Did any of you have a favorite toy growing up?
Keaton: I had several, and they were usually things that got reinvented. And then things you would see Christmas morning that you couldn’t believe were literally on the list or just out of nowhere, and you thought, “This guy, Santa Claus, is a genius. How does this guy know what I like?” …
We grew up outside of industrial western Pennsylvania, but in the country. So it was a combination of country people but in between two gritty mill towns, urban. So my mom was from that, and my dad was a country boy, really. I got in the mail — I don’t know who sent it to me; it must’ve been my mom — a manila envelope after I had written to Santa Claus and filled out my list. I was obsessed with Christmas. I was so in love with the concept of Christmas and Santa Claus and all that stuff. And in the mail, after I sent my list in — and this was I think department stores did this — came an envelope from Santa Claus. I was so gullible as a kid. I was 17 at the time. No, just kidding.
I was so gullible about the notion that there was this person that did this thing. When I got [the mail], it said, “Master Michael Douglas …” I couldn’t take my eyes off the word “master.” First of all, I thought it was empowering. And second of all, I thought, “Oh, master is what you say when you’re not a mister. I don’t have a wife.” I just remember staring at that envelope. I was so in love with it. I just kept looking and looking at it. No one ever called me “Master Michael” before … There were tons of tons I fell in love with. A lot of things I made. I didn’t get a G.I. Joe.
Benson: Mr. Potato Head. And I had Barbies.
Ratzenberger: I grew up across the street from a shipyard. My favorite toy? I would just get scrap wood stuff. There was a dump nearby. I would go through the dump. My mother — God bless her, she’s still here with us — she used to get me old radios from rummages sales, and she cut off the cord, and I would take them apart. I would just be making stuff. I loved pounding nails and climbing a tree. Kids can’t do that today, obviously, because of political correctness. The Woodstock Nation destroyed that. Just climb a tree and scrape your knees.
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
Keaton: Now, wait a minute. I am Woodstock Nation …
Ratzenberger: I was there. I helped build the [Woodstock] stage.
Ratzenberger: Yeah. I was a traveling carpenter.
Keaton: My kid is 27, so he came from a generation where there was a lot of consuming going on, and the thing I’d love about him is he still would make stuff. He still had toys — not a ton of them; we wouldn’t skimp — but he still would go and get stuff and go in the woods and play, because I had a ranch that he would spend a ton of time at, and his mom’s house had a lot of trees in the backyard … He was obsessed with hockey at the time, and he cut out these big Styrofoam things and taped them like goalie pads, and he made his own goalie pads.
Ratzenberger: It’s the tinkering spirit. Every industry on the face of the earth started with one person inventing one thing. And every single one of those inventors started off as a child doing what your son did: tinkering objects from different places. It had nothing to do with toys or proscribed activities. It was all just getting junk and putting it together. A cardboard box could be anything.
Keaton: My brothers were tremendous shack builders. My shacks were horrible. My brothers once built a two-story shack from the ground up that was awesome!
Ratzenberger: If you go to my website, Ratzenberger.com, I have a foundation. We set up schools nationwide through the Association of Community Colleges and their camps, just to do that with kids now. Go to Ratzenberger.com, and it’ll lead you to Nuts, Bolts 9& Thingamajigs] Foundation. So that’s the long answer to a short question. I just like outing things together. But going through the dump, my mother thought I was getting a little squirrely, so she had me try out for Little League, like the rest of my friends. I could care less?
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
How do you think the “Toy Story” movies have affected kids and how they look at toys?
Keaton: [He says to Ratzenberger] You said something earlier that was interesting, in terms, of it’s nothing you can control.
Ratzenberger: Kids will have a fascination with sandboxes. I had a fascination with sandboxes. I had a fascination with sandboxes, because it’s the first place where a child learns common sense. If you use your hands, it’s common sense not to hit your thumbs with a hammer. A sandbox is beautiful because you learn not to eat sand. In those worlds that you live in, whether it’s on a beach or playing with a cardboard box, as a child, you control that world. That’s your world, and everything else is controlled by adults. So I think that’s what the toys in “Toy Story” and everything else, when you start playing with them, this is your kingdom, this is your empire; you are the god of everything you’re creating, and I think that’s the important thing.
Keaton: I really loved Lincoln Logs. I had inherited a half-box. Somebody had bought Lincoln Logs and they were laying around, so I kind of found these in the closet … And my mother must’ve seen I really liked them, because the next year I got a full set … [Lincoln Logs] are precursors to Legos. They were made of wood and were little log-cabin kits that you put together …
I was nuts for realism. My little soldiers … I would look at their faces, and if they didn’t look real enough for me — out! If they had some ridiculous look on their face while they were killing somebody, I wanted nothing to do with that guy.
I really looked at the guys, and I would put them in forts, and I started a fire to the point where the fire department had to come. There were a bunch of pine trees that my dad had cut down — old tress that had kind of dried out — and I was playing with my things and I thought, “What would be really realistic would be … Let’s burn it!” So me and my buddy burned it down, and the next thing I know, the whole thing was up [in flames]. I ran all the way home. And the next thing I hear are the [fire-truck] sirens going. We had a brush fire that I [started].
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
You mentioned that you liked realism. So how did you go into the mindset of the “Toy Story” fantasy world of toys coming to life?
Keaton: I was so obsessed with what I would read. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was “Cowboys,” because I was obsessed with the West, prisoner-of-war escape stories. I’d read them over and over and over again. And I tried to imagine what would literally happen … I would wonder, “What would happen to that guy?”
Ratzenberger: For me, it was James Fenimore Cooper, “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Deerslayer,” the point where … I love boats, and one of my boats is named Natty Bumppo. Natty Bumppo is the birth name given to the Deerslayer, the Daniel-Day-Lewis part [in the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans”]. His Christian given name is Nathaniel Bumppo. The white people in town called him Natty Bumppo, and the Indians called him Deerslayer or whatever it was. So I have a boat actually named Natty Bumppo.
Harris: Monopoly! I loved Monopoly. And I just had to find friends to come and play Monopoly. I think that was the only toy I ever got, until I was 10 years old, and my aunt got me a doll — a big, beautiful doll with blonde hair. And I didn’t know what to do with her, so I just kept her on my bed and looked at her.
Ratzenberger: Do you play Monopoly still?
Harris: I used to play it with my grandsons, but they’re too old now. But if you want to come, I have a Monopoly set. Come over and play Monopoly!
Ratzenberger: We should have Monopoly night every Thursday at your house.
Keaton: That’s my Scrabble night.
John Ratzenberger, “Toy Story 3” director/co-writer Lee Unkrich and Joan Cusack at the Los ANgele spremiere after-party of “Toy Story 3”
Do you think kids nowadays are missing out on traditional toys, because so many of today’s kids are into playing video games?
Keaton: [He says jokingly] No, they hack into China.
Ratzenberger: It’s actually affecting us as a civilization. I used to do this show called “Made in America.” I traveled the country for five years and visited over 300 companies. The biggest worry is that children are graduating from high schools without the ability to read a ruler … Kids out of high school cannot do that. Consequently, when you’re building airplanes, or whatever it is, the infrastructure, to be a welder, you have to know how to measure and you have to know angles. And one of the complaints is that engineers graduate with a degree, and they design things that can’t be built, because they didn’t build things when they were growing up.
Keaton: I used to work on a survey crew, because my dad was an engineer, but he was also a surveyor.
Ratzenberger: So he was like George Washington!
Keaton: Yeah, like George Washington. So we would go out and work for him, but it was so boring, so dull. And then I worked for a company, and it was sometimes hard work, because you literally had to hack your way through the woods and lay a line … Now, it’s off-the-charts technologically and fascinating. But I walked up to a guy watching him work … and he didn’t even know what I was talking about. He didn’t even know how to pull a 150-foot chain.
Ratzenberger: It’s completely different now. In six to 10 years, the industry just may grind to a halt. They stopped giving shop courses in schools now, in the last 25 years, because everyone had to go to college and be fabulous. Well, OK, now we have a lot of people with degrees in sports management who can’t even change the tires of their cars.
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
Keaton: Even my son and his friends were talking about this the other day, how the Europeans … they look at about what you probably want to do.
Ratzenberger: Germany and Norway are probably the biggest countries [that do that].
Keaton: Yeah, it’s so smart … But in terms of toys, I may sound like, “Yeah, these kids today …” But I do think even kids today don’t want their [play time] to be quite as sedentary. They may not know why. I hear kids in their 20s talk and they’re saying, “I kind of hate that I’m connected [through technology] so much now.” So there’s a pullback.
Ratzenberger: So if you have a toy in “Toy Story,” you can explore outside, inside, upstairs, downstairs, under the bed. You get to have little adventures in your head. Xbox and all that doesn’t allow that.
Harris: What has all of this got to do with “Toy Story 3” and how wonderful it is and how funny it is and how exciting it is? And how you can laugh and cry and enter their world?
Keaton: Point well-taken. I’m sorry I brought you into any of this. John got me started.
Harris: I accept your apology.
Estelle Harris at the Los Angeles premiere of “Toy Story 3”
Estelle, did it feel different to play Mrs. Potato Head in “Toy Story 3” compared to “Toy Story 2”?
Harris: The only way it was different was that in “Toy Story 2,” I was directed by John Lasseter, and this time I wasn’t. I was directed by Lee [Unkrich]. And that was the only difference. It was the same process, because if you’ve got something good going, you just keep going with the good and just improve on it, but you don’t change. If they changed, it would be bad, I think.
What improved in “Toy Story 3” compared to the previous other “Toy Story” movies?
Harris: It was just better. It was more exciting. It was different, but not different enough to change the beauty and the excitement and the love and the warmth. It’s got everything. I was very impressed with it.
Benson: I think this movie had a lot more feeling to it than [“Toy Story”] number one and number two. When we went to the [“Toy Story 3”] screening in Los Angeles, I didn’t have the whole script … we just had our pages [with our characters’ lines]. Lee would tell you the story, but he didn’t really explain the ending to me that much. So when we went to the screening with the five or six of us that were there, I was really crying hard. I was trying not to let anybody see that. I was like, “Why am I so emotional about this?”
I’ve got two children who are 9 and 11, and I think it’s just capturing the innocence of their childhood and trying to maintain that. I’m trying to keep the kids younger than society wants them to be, so I could relate to it as a parent, and I was relating to it as a grown adult. So I really had a lot more going on emotionally.
I really cried at the end, and I didn’t in [“Toy Story”] 1 or 2. I asked [“Toy Story 3” director/co-writer] Lee [Unkrich] and [“Toy Story 3” producer] Darla [K. Anderson] about that, and they said, “Yeah, we kind of went to the next level with the child-and-the-parent issue.” As I’ve got an 11-year-old boy who’s going through puberty and stepping out, it really got my heart, big-time, on that.
Mr. Potato Head (viced by Don Rickles) and Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris) in “Toy Story 3”
Keaton: Yeah, it’s a very emotional movie.
Benson: There’s much more heart going on, I think, than I anticipated. It was a very big movie at the end, and I had no idea it was going to be that big: scary, nervous, excited, some anxiety. Personally, I felt a whole lot more than I did watching [“Toy Story”] 1 or 2.
Harris: And hope for the future for these toys, another new element coming up. I couldn’t get over it. I think it’s just brilliant.
Keaton: Yeah, it’s extremely moving.
Benson: It’s different form what I thought it was going to be. I wasn’t expecting it.
Ratzenberger: The [the people at Pixar] give themselves a bar, and they keep it up there, but they don’t lower it, like, “Let’s dumb down.”
A movie still from “Toy Story 3”
Do you think “Toy Story 3” is the darkest of the “Toy Story” films?
Harris: Yes, there was darkness.
Ratzenberger: Well, the first one had that, too.
Harris: There’s light and darkness.
Benson: Well, it had a reality to it. It had a little bit of everything.
Harris: It wasn’t so child-like.
Keaton: But we’re talking about there’s a generation who are now in their teens and who grew up with this [“Toy Story” series], and totally connect with this [“Toy Story 3” plot about Andy outgrowing his toys], which was really smart. And then the older people will get it.
Ratzenberger: [He says jokingly] I think in “Toy Story 4,” Andy father’s come back. He’d been in the circus for a while. I don’t want to give away too much ….
Benson: [She says jokingly] You better not tell the story! You’re going to in trouble!
Raztberger: [She says jokingly] He was in the Foreign Legion, originally.
For more info: “Toy Story 3” website
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Photo credits: Photo #1, 10, 12: Getty Images. Photo #5: Reuters. All other photos: Pixar Animation Studios/Disney Enterprises, Inc.